Moist little man

I recently spent some time in the British Library. In the men’s toilets on the first floor, in the cubicle on the right hand side, a visiting wit has written on the toilet-roll dispenser: ‘Michael Gove is a moist little man’. This is just one example of a malady sweeping Britain, diagnosed by Professor Frank Furedi as ‘Govephobia’.

Govephobia: hyperbolic and inchoate

Govephobia: hyperbolic and inchoate

At union meetings, delegates vie to make the most diabolical comparison with the Education Secretary. One described him as an ‘evil entity’, whilst Mary Bousted likened Gove and Michael Wilshaw to ‘blood brothers’. Public figures, for whom there is little previous evidence of an interest in education, can whip a crowd of bien pensants into an approving frenzy with a couple of jabs at Gove – see Simon Schama at the Hay-On-Wye Literary Festival this May. The most frequent question I find myself asked after ‘what do you do?’ is ‘do you hate Michael Gove?’ If you work in education, this appears to be assumed.

I don’t hate Gove, in fact I agree with much of what he is doing. So I have been giving Govephobia some thought. In particular, why is this hatred so often expressed in a hyperbolic and inchoate fashion? Gove it seems is either ‘evil’ or ‘moist’. Perhaps this is because Gove’s opponents have ceased to engage with his reforms on an intellectual level. We have recently seen a spoof book sold on Amazon entitled Everything I know about teaching by Mr Michael Gove, and a Michael Gove voodoo doll. Such pranks appear as the last refuge of those who are losing the debate.

A Gove pincusion: once again, words fail the Govephobes

A Gove pincusion: once again, words fail the Govephobes

What is really lacking from the rampant spread of Govephobia is a clear, thoughtful refutation of the core planks of Gove’s reforms. Who can offer a thoughtful explanation of why there should be less knowledge taught in our schools? Who has offered a convincing defence of handing more power back to Local Education Authorities? Where can I find a serious explanation of why we should keep a GCSE system that accepts English language questions on Simon Cowell’s autobiography, proven corruption and grade inflation? Can someone tell me why we should not be concerned that England/N. Ireland is the only country in the developed world where 16-24 year olds have lower literacy levels than 55-65 year olds?

Gove may seem like Satan, but the devil really has all the best tunes. So when it comes to explaining precisely why Gove is so evil, people have trouble – see the rocky ride so far experienced by Tristrum Hunt. It is no surprise that people pressed on why they hate Michael Gove commonly respond with things that are not true. Allow me to list such examples in (my estimated) order of frequency:

  1. He is privatising education.
  2. He has imposed the jingoistic teaching of history on British schools.
  3. He plans to reintroduce selection.

As for the accusation that Gove is ideological, it is so very banal. Education is invariably ideological, that is what makes it interesting to debate. A history curriculum that mentions ‘diversity’ twelve times and ‘religion’ once, as did New Labour’s 2007 offering, is hardly neutral. Although Gove’s February draft of the history curriculum was flawed, the September draft is highly sensible. Also, we should remind ourselves that Gove has ringfenced almost all education spending – not bad for a Thatcherite.

At the heart of Govephobia is an interesting paradox. He is widely regarded within the government as their most successful minister, subject to numerous predictions for future party leadership. However, the teaching profession regards him as a destructive fool.

Nuance is necessary. Gove has reformed enough areas and made enough speeches that only a fool would declare themselves in favour the complete Gove package. Issues such as monitoring Free Schools (see Al-Madinah), and the details of performance related pay are both areas where I would take issue, but they are relatively minor. In contrast, some excellent education bloggers (Stuart Lock, Old Andrew, Kevin Bartle) have laid political viewpoints aside and expressed qualified support for the direction Gove has taken since 2010.

To be perfectly honest, I find Govephobia distressing. It is rampant, inarticulate, and a bandwagon. But it is also a vindication of what Gove is doing. Gove is unusual as an education secretary for thoughtfully engaging with the past century of educational debate (David Blunkett was the last to do so), as can be seen in two of his recent speeches at the SMF and Brighton College. He has asked some pretty damning questions about our schools’ educational orthodoxies, and I think this goes a long way to explaining the strange nature of Govephobia. If there something that a middle-class liberal is bound to hate, it is a conservative winning an intellectual argument. In response, they can only rage that he is a moist little man.

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~ by goodbyemisterhunter on November 6, 2013.

6 Responses to “Moist little man”

  1. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  2. Agree completely that far far too many people are attacking Gove personally over things that are either untrue or irrelevant. While I disagree with his views on several specific points of policy I am always amazed at how many people think I must therefore hate him (and are quick to get upset when I explain that I don’t). This goes both ways though – I have been surprised and occasionally saddened at the venomous way Gove has spoken about certain people, particularly the unions and academics. Again, even if you passionately disagree with people, there is a way of pointing out flaws in the arguments which aren’t just attacks on their character – something Gove has sometimes neglected in favour of a headline.

    There are points for which I think he can be fairly criticised. The Free Schools policy had some pretty obvious flaws from the outset that it should not have taken until now to be addressing. The QTS liberation is problematic. While I agree with making the National Curriculum more rigorous I actually don’t think it has been achieved – in part because of the ridiculous way it was written (why hire experts only to ignore them and write it yourself? Even as much as I believe that politicians have a right to be heavily involved in education, writing the curriculum when you have no pedagogical knowledge is a bit of a leap). But you’re right that people don’t talk about these things. They prefer scare tactics about privatisation and “going back to the 50s”. Hopefully what you have written here will discourage that and go some way toward us all having a more productive discussion.

  3. Govephobic pranks aren’t the last refuge of those who are losing the debate. They’re a desperate attempt to ridicule someone who won’t even engage in a debate, whose contempt for Parliament and democratic accountability is self-evident, who makes his own personality the issue through his own ad hominem assaults on his critics. Gove invites strong responses (pro and anti). It’s the stock in trade of the consummate, ambitious politician. It ensures he’s right up there in the consciousness of those who will choose Cameron’s successor.

  4. I think you’re only addressing the weakest arguments against Gove and ignoring the intelligent ones that many people are making. For example:

    1. His frequent lies/distortions including amending speeches retrospectively (see Janet Downs’s articles on Local Schools Network).
    2. Allowing free schools to be set up in areas of surplus when there is a chronic shortage of places elsewhere.
    3. Taking academies out of the remit of LAs while retaining LAs legal obligation to provide enough school places. That’s just ridiculous.
    4. Cancelling projects which have been demonstrably successful – London and City Challenge – and pursuing academisation and free schools which have no such evidence base.
    5. Forcing academy conversions which are very expensive, denies parental choice and doesn’t improve performance (at least there is no evidence that it does).
    6. Failing to adequately oversee free schools.
    7. Decreasing choice in areas where most schools are run by one academy chain.
    8. Refusing to mandate that proper sex and relationship education is taught in schools, despite very clear evidence that children are exposed to pornography in a way previous generations were not and that many think that violent/degrading treatment of women is normal (see the everydaysexism website, for example – one eg that stands out is a 13 year old girl who thought for a long time that being hurt during sex was normal because of something she’d seen online).
    9. Cutting oversight of boarding schools and home education despite warnings that this would put children at risk (and refusing to cut forced academisation despite being told specifically that it’s not value for money).
    10. Extreme lack of transparency re free schools.

    Tens a nice round number so I’ll stop there! Add this to Gove’s nastiness about his opponents, I can see why people hate him.

    Also, re the privatisation, he has said that he has nothing against privatisation and his policy allows companies, via trusts, to line up ready to pounce should that happen. Talking about privatisation isn’t paranoia.

  5. “Such pranks appear as the last refuge of those who are losing the debate.” On the contrary, such pranks are clever capitalist profiteering from a demand-driven market.

  6. […] have written about the causes of Govephobia before, but this week I was alerted to another possible factor– he is never out of the press. […]

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